In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and surrounding Louisiana parishes. Over 1800 people lost their lives and countless others lost their homes. Waves of volunteers poured into the region immediately following the storm and in the years since to assist with rebuilding efforts. The question raised by a voluntourism experience is who does it benefit – the tourist or the host?
A Night on Bourbon Street
“Come on, Cher!”
Before I could object, I was pulled by the arm into the bar and marched up onto the stage. A harness was lowered over my head. It had a washboard attached that covered my chest.
“Une! Deux! Trois!”
The band launched into some rollicking zydeco and a pair of hands bearing spoons materialized in front of me. Rhythmically, vigorously, the spoons strummed my washboard.
Laissez les bon temps rouler!
At breakfast the next morning my husband was still laughing about my misadventure on Bourbon Street the night before. I considered beaning him with a beignet. He was still giggling as we drove to the airport. “If only you could have seen the look on your face!” Thankfully, he’s never learned to work a camera.
When we pulled up to the curb, he turned towards me. Taking my hand, he said “Have a good week. Be safe. Love you.” I pulled away from the departures level and headed towards Slidell to participate in a weeklong Habitat for Humanity voluntourism experience.
Helpless after the Hurricane
In the days, weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina, a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed me. And I was angry, because I think everyone – the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Louisiana politicians, the residents of New Orleans – knew the levee system would fail in the face of a powerful storm and had done nothing to address its weaknesses. As I drove along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, I was dumbstruck that anyone believed that the grid of earthen berms in the area would adequately protect the neighborhoods from surging waters. It was time for all of us to apologize and get to the business of putting things right.
Helping from Home
I sent checks, collected clothes, attended benefit concerts and added my name to a volunteer registry, hoping to get an opportunity to physically do something to help. Then I started receiving calls about two months after the storm. “Would I be able to come to New Orleans and assist with cleanup efforts?” they’d ask. Volunteers were needed to muck out homes, businesses, streets. These volunteers needed to wear protective gear and respirators. ”Can you help us?”
I passed on these voluntourism experiences. I was afraid to put myself in harm’s way, primarily because I thought it would be irresponsible as the mother of three young children. So my helplessness remained, accompanied now by guilt. I wrote more checks and bombarded my legislators with pleas to aid the Gulf Coast.
Answering the Call
Then in November 2006, over a year after the storm, a call came that I was able to answer. Habitat for Humanity was active in Slidell, Louisiana. The city of 32,000 located about 30 miles north of Louisiana was devastated by Katrina when a 13-foot storm surge rolled through. Volunteers were needed for weeklong assignments to work alongside professional electricians, plumbers, carpenters rebuilding homes. I made flight arrangements and bought a tool belt. And almost immediately thereafter began doubting myself.
What kind of help could I possibly be?
Would my voluntourism experience benefit the residents or would I simply be in the way?
The Voluntourism Experience
These were the questions running through my head as I arrived to check in for the Habitat for Humanity project on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. My accommodations for the build were less than luxurious; voluntourists would stay in a sheriff’s barracks on the outskirts of town. I was the first to arrive. A sheriff’s deputy gave me the ten-cent tour: gang showers, lounge, bunk rooms. His advice was to grab a top bunk away from the door.
Since I had no recent experience with dormitory living, I did as he suggested, throwing my pack on a distant, upper cot. I got directions to the nearest supermarket and headed out to buy some cereal bars for breakfast. Lunch was provided at the worksite, but we were responsible for the rest of our meals.
Arriving in Slidell
Slidell is a middle class community, much like my hometown. It was jarring to travel through one subdivision after another and see trailers and RVs parked in the driveways next to the basketball hoops and minivans.
I pulled over to take a photo of one garage that had the water line marked approximately 7 feet high. The homeowner came over and we talked about the storm, the challenges of trailer life for his family of four, and his uncertain future. His family was fortunate and had the financial resources to rebuild, but there was too much work and not enough contractors, so everyone was waiting. And waiting.
By the time I got back to the barracks, a rowdy church group of 16 had arrived from Vermont. The women began arranging makeup bags and blowdryers in the bathroom while the men hauled coolers and grocery bags from their bus. I gravitated towards the other independent volunteers: an administrator from Auburn University, an innkeeper from Washington’s San Juan Islands, a Mary Kay rep from New Mexico, and Paul, a retired carpenter from Minnesota. They all had experience with other Habitat builds, many of them had traveled to sites throughout Central and South America.
A Day in the Life of a Voluntourist
We carpooled together to the worksite and joined other groups of voluntourists. Paul insisted I stay with him as the coordinators assigned people to tasks. “If you have no skills, they’ll stick you with the painters,” he warned. “You can be my helper.” I had no idea what the job duties of a carpenter’s assistant would be, but the unknown was preferential to scooting along on my knees painting baseboard for five days.
It turns out a fairly large amount of my time was spent fetching. There were a limited number of tools available to the volunteers, so each morning I sprinted to the shed and acquired the items we’d need to assist with the framing and window and door installations: the good level, the less rusty pry bar, a hammer with an intact grip, and the Bono-like safety glasses. Paul would then give me a list of the lumber we needed, and happily I’d bring him lengths of two by four, sheets of plywood, shims. He was a very patient teacher, explaining new tasks and by the end of the week I was hanging drywall, installing lock sets and displaying professional proficiency with the SAWZALL.
Each evening we headed to the Camellia Cafe to have one or two Abitas and po’ boys. Then we exchanged stories about our home lives. Paul is Norwegian and he shared enough information about lutefisk (whitefish soaked in lye) to ensure we’d never try it. We devoured our meals and headed back to the barracks, exhausted after the long days on the worksite.
The week flew by and my hands grew calloused. I lost a few pounds and gained a farmer’s tan. We said our goodbyes to each other and to the homeowners who worked alongside us in compliance with Habitat’s requirements (The organization’s motto is “A Hand Up Not A Hand Out”.). It was very strange, after a week of showering and sleeping with strangers, to find myself alone in the rental car, heading back to the airport. A lifetime had seemingly passed since my stint with the zydeco band on Bourbon Street, when I was desperate to help but afraid I’d fail.
We didn’t complete any homes during my stay so nothing had visibly changed. But I knew that another group would arrive the next day. And next week. Eventually the Gulf Coast would be rebuilt. And whatever small amount of aid I’d provided, I was handed back tenfold by the experience. Had I helped? I’ll never know. But I do know how much voluntouring helped me.